TED Talks Hurt the Free Flow of Ideas


A recent editorial in The Atlantic makes the argument that TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) — a global conference formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading” — actually makes ideas smaller. The editorial makes the case that the platform constricts ideas because it facilitates the “ownership of ideas.” TED reinforces the belief that it is more important to patent ideas then to let them develop and take a life of their own. Ideas that were once conversational and free-wheeling now have become intellectual properties.

As a TED-fanatic, I may feel obligated to disagree with the editorial, but there is some validity to its points. The spectrum of ideas allowed at these TED conferences has expanded to encompass the gamut of infinite possible ideas. Leading experts from various backgrounds are coming together to impart their knowledge onto future generations. This project has started a movement, initiating a global ripple effect that inspires others to think more conceptually. However, the structure of the system prevents the public from weighing in on the conversation. It has not been a sufficiently reliable forum for discussion. The talks are organized much like college classes, in that there is more lecturing then there is discussion. In the name of spreading a concept, the talk ends up narrowing it. The topics may be engaging, but the talks are usually not.

To pitch an idea at a TED talk is a validation of sorts that grants only an exclusive number of speakers the honor of establishing their name alongside accomplished intellectual giants that the institution has selected, such as physicist Steven Hawkins, former President Bill Clinton, and billionaire Bill Gates.

TED talks feel more like award ceremonies than conferences. To be a speaker at TED is a testament of merit that permits individuals to introduce ideas that they can claim absolute ownership over. These speakers are being rewarded for their accomplishments, and yet the public, whose ideas may coincide or differ with theirs, is being deprived of having their own voices heard. The speaker's word is unquestionable because they now have the notoriety to prove it. And since there is no time for debate, their ideas are assumed to be right even though there may be critics. The speaker reigns supreme, with no challengers to threaten his ideas.

Time contributes to this problem. Speakers are limited to only 18 minutes of speech, which generally includes two to three minutes of unnecessary banter and sentimental storytelling. More complex ideas that require a greater amount of explanation are hindered by this time constraint. Oftentimes, a proposition is made without any form of evidentiary support. Further information is necessary, but this demands further analysis. Oftentimes, speakers don't delve deeper into specifics and ideas are consequently left to linger. The public is left with more questions and more hypotheticals then answers by the end.

This problem could easily be resolved if the atmosphere was more intimate. When students have questions for a professor, inquiries can normally be addressed by simply raising a hand. At TED, of course, this doesn't happen because of time restraints, event guidelines, and personal preferences. Rather, the audience absorbs the material without having the opportunity to offer criticism, raise concerns, or build upon the speaker's idea. And because the larger TEDx events — independently organized TED programs — are private, only a select group of individuals would be able to attend. A small minority are given the opportunity to be a part of this learning experience. It would be more educationally rewarding to pay for a college course. At least most professors will take the time to address any reservations. The talks are uploaded on the website and are made open to the public; however, web interaction lacks the intimacy of face-to-face communication. It is more fulfilling to witness the event, to be a part of the experience, then to watch a recording of it.

TED is an innovative platform that can propel ideas forward, but the program ultimately fails to provide communities, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue and spark conversation. Although TED events certainly have the potential to inspire others, it has become more of an institution of recognition rather than a channel for innovation. More voices are being silenced than freed. 

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